This is week 2 of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘.
A punk concert wouldn’t quite live up to the expectations of its mission if it didn’t end in police presence and arrests, as seen by many anarchical, boisterous bands through the latter half of the 20th century. However, one concert sets apart all the rest, taking place far from the good old British Terra Firma’s civilised grounds.
On the 7th June 1977 crowds gathered on the UK streets, waving their tiny British flags to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, commemorating 25 years of her reign. All over television stations, horses trotting alongside a marvellous, golden carriage was broadcasted with the sound of Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” to the British public from 10am. Elsewhere, however, an up-and-coming punk quartet was drafting plans for their own celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee. As dusk fell on British soil, the musical uprising had ignited on the sea.
The Sex Pistols, armed with instruments, took to their boat concert on the Thames River just outside of Westminster Palace to consolidate their place as a real establishment irritant. Plans to circumvent a “ban” brought on their newly released track ‘God Save the Queen’ was a frustrating failure. Before the performance could proceed — and in true punk style— they were halted by authorities.
At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, Britain was undergoing a national depression due to strikes, cuts and unemployment from a range of necessary services. This resulted in many having little to no income against the ever-increasing cost of living. Notably, due to the closure of coal mines and their workers’ strikes, a 3 day work week was implemented in the UK to conserve fuel, and due to this, it would be fair to say that economically, the 70s was a decade of discontent. However, all the social unrest had a silver lining to its dark cloud: an emerging punk scene, fronted by the Sex Pistols.
Noted as one of the greatest youth subcultures of British history, the Sex Pistols quickly put both the punk genre and subculture on the map and ‘God Save the Queen’ was the chant of choice. This song blew up like a nuclear bomb, with its radiation still being felt today, expressing the pent up rage and frustration of a generation toward the British Monarchy and establishment.
Just like many protest songs before them, ‘God Save the Queen’, in Johnny Rotten half-singing fashion, vocalised the feelings of alienation felt by the youth from the rule of what many would testify as an outdated, old-fashioned monarchy. Given the context of 70s Britain, poverty was too close to home for much of their youth. However, many felt it was a human truth the establishment could not be more out of touch with.
Also, similar to John Fogerty, the Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) explained in an interview with Daniel Rachel (The Art of Noise; Conversations with Great Songwriters) that the thought process behind the song had taken some time to ferment in his brain: “‘God Save the Queen’ was running around in my mind for months, long before joining the Sex Pistols; the idea of being angry of the indifference of the Queen to the population and the aloofness and indifference to us as people.” It was also here that he claimed that as the Pistols came along, he penned the ruthless, raw and dirty track at his parent’s kitchen table over a bowl of baked beans, showing a sort of quirky honesty and unabashed side of his formidable character.
Lydon also went onto explain in an episode of Channel 4’s X-Rated: TV They Tried to Ban, his still bubbling frustrations with the Monarchy, even decades on: “That woman has precious little to do with her so-called subjects other than ignored the hell out of us.” Lydon paused. “We’re just there to prop up her tiara.”
Though being branded “degrading and disgusting” by a large portion of Britain’s elderly and conservative, Lydon managed to irk the establishment itself. James Whittaker, a Royal Commentator on the same show, stated: “We’d had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of course, who’d upset a few, but the sheer disgustingness of the Sex Pistols did offend a lot of people.”
However, Lydon argues that it wasn’t his intent to agitate the elderly or established but rather liberate the alienated and disillusioned: “…these things meant something; they weren’t just done for shock value. They have a point and a purpose.” Despite Lydon’s claims, it’s clear that the establishment was part of the demographic who interpreted the song as not only a mockery but an attack on their ruler and almost immediately, theories emerged of their revenge.
Before the song’s release, EMI and A&M both abandoned the Pistols, branding them as trouble, but EMI’s loss was Richard Branson’s gain and ‘God Save the Queen’ was released on Virgin Records. Though superstores such as Woolworths and WH Smith refused to stock the single, there was a loophole irony in that by labelling it taboo, its value boomed, selling over 150,000 copies within the first week of release. Many disgraced pressing plant workers were so outraged that they threatened strikes.
Outselling the number one song in the UK at the time, Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It/ The First Cut is the Deepest’ but conveniently and controversially stayed firmly put at number two, John Walters, a BBC Radio 1 producer, was confident that ‘God Save the Queen’ was destined to be number 1, as did a lot of his audience. Speculations surfaced, and claims of inside involvement that kept the song off of the number one spot due to establishment humiliation were brought to the fore. Claims from even the band themselves: “I think I was too damn close to the truth” Lydon began, “probably not getting it completely right but far too accurate for the establishment.”
Maybe, just maybe, this track was intended in sincerity to galvanise the working class and disillusioned youth. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, it was instead designed as an establishment mockery, but almost certainly—it succeeded at both. This unapologetic explosion of real, dirty rock with a visceral core sent shockwaves through a nation, and the ripples of its influence can still be felt today in whichever British city you choose to stomp.
Photo Source: “SEX PISTOLS” by pupsy27 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0